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Nominee for Best Picture, Directing, Actor in a supporting role, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Music (original score)
Movie Review

Milk

MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief violence.

Reviewed by: Ethan Samuel Rodgers
CONTRIBUTOR

Extremely Offensive
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults
Genre:
Biography, Drama
Length:
2 hr. 8 min.
Year of Release:
2008
USA Release:
December 5, 2008
November 26, 2008 (limited)
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Relevant Issues
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About murder in the Bible

What’s wrong with being gay? Answer
Homosexual behavior versus the Bible: Are people born gay? Does homosexuality harm anyone? Is it anyone's business? Are homosexual and heterosexual relationships equally valid?

What about gays needs to change? Answer
It may not be what you think.

Can a gay or lesbian person go to heaven? Answer
If a homosexual accepts Jesus into his heart, but does not want to change his lifestyle, can he/she still go to Heaven?

What should be the attitude of the church toward homosexuals and homosexuality? Answer

Read stories about those who have struggled with homosexuality

A single man or woman can help change the world. Read about some who did with faith and God's help…
Jesus Christ, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David

Sin and the Bible

Do Not Enter

Featuring: Sean Penn
James Franco
Emile Hirsch
Josh Brolin
Diego Luna
Victor Garber
more »
Director: Gus Van Sant
Producer: Focus Features, Axon Films, Groundswell Productions, Jinks/Cohen Company, Dustin Lance Black, Bruce Cohen, Barbara A. Hall, William Horberg, Dan Jinks, Michael London, Bruna Papandrea
Distributor: Focus Features

“Never blend in”

As I watched this film, I thought back on other films portraying great men and women in history—great films and biographical accounts that tell the stories of their lives. They tell their triumphs, their accomplishments, the events that surrounded their lives and how they affected the world around them. There’s one thing missing from the list I just put forth, however: their faults and tribulations. The hard times, the downfalls, their flaws—quite simply, what makes them human beings.

Gus Van Sant’s biopic “Milk” suffers greatly in this fashion. Without conflict, there can be no climax. Without trials there can be no victory.

A “friend, lover, unifier, politician, fighter, icon, inspiration, and hero” is how the movie was meant to show Harvey Milk, the first outspoken gay who was elected to public office, and who attempted to change the world around him as a gay rights activist during the 1970’s in San Francisco. And Van Sant did just that.

The film begins in 1970 just before Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) moves to San Francisco. Milk moves to Castro Street, a neighborhood with an increasing influx of gays and lesbians, and opens a camera shop, Castro Camera. The movie develops his views as an openly gay man who becomes more and more opposed to the idea of keeping his life and others lives that share his “values” a secret. This influences him to run for City Supervisor, and Van Sant follows his campaign for change and for understanding.

Characterized by influential speeches and humorous moments true to Harvey Milk, after unsuccessfully attempting to gain the City Supervisor seat in 1973, and the two terms following that, he finally garners enough attention from the media and the voters and is elected City Supervisor in 1977.

With the supporting cast anchored by James Franco (Scott Smith, Milk’s lover), as well as Emile Hirsch (Cleve Jones, political activist and advisor) as well as Josh Brolin (Dan White, political rival and antagonist), the film carries a heavy bias against those opposing the gay movement that climaxes in 1977 with Milk’s election and ultimately his assassination in 1978.

This is the greatest problem with this film: its bias. Although a film with this cast and this message could simply tell the story of a man who lived a controversial life, I, as a Christian and film enthusiast, knew it couldn’t be left at that. It would be too simple and too objective to do so. In an age where films such as “W.”, “Religulous,” and “Hamlet 2” are shown to mock Christians and their prejudicial views, it is difficult to expect anything more.

Van Sant places Milk on a pedestal. Unwavering in his enthusiasm, his beliefs, and his attitude, Milk carries on through opposition from both sides, but never falters. With his lover, Smith (Franco) at his side, he conquers the world by taking on the world. So where’s the conflict?

Therein lies the political message, that people who don’t support this sweeping movement don’t understand. They’re blind, unreasonable, and unchanging in the face of reason and knowledge. Milk’s cohorts are never mistaken, he is never guilty of any wrongs, and those that oppose him are portrayed as fools.

The film’s antagonist, Dan White (Josh Brolin) is in fact a Catholic politician, who opposes Milk and what he stands for. In a particular scene, Brolin is having his son baptized, and Milk, out of the goodness of his heart, attends to support his political rival. Of course, Milk, calm and reasonable, simply turns the other cheek when both White and his wife oppose Milk’s presence at the baptism or even the church itself.

I think this is a great problem in many people’s minds about Christians. This generalization that we hate gays and homosexuals, or don’t understand them, or simply don’t even consider them human. But I know that, as a Christian, God has instructed us to love everyone, this obviously includes homosexuals. I’ve always told people “I don’t disapprove of people, and I don’t judge them, but I don’t approve of their lifestyle, and I don’t tell them I have nothing against it.”

Men are all created equal. Every man, woman, and child of every race, religion, and even sexuality, has been created in the image of God. But every man is just that, a man—fallen, a sinner, one who cannot reach the kingdom of heaven through his own righteousness.

Even the greatest of men in the Bible fell: David, Solomon, Moses. Not only were these men not perfect, they were sinners, and the Bible did not hide this. Surprisingly, the Gospel portrays their faults in an obvious light so that we can see and learn from their mistakes, see that although these were great men, or even men “after God’s own heart,” they were far from perfect.

However, Harvey Milk, as far as Van Sant was concerned, was not David or Solomon, or really a man at all. He was the Christ figure of the gay movement, and symbolized the perfection of this movement and its followers, disregarding all the problems that go along with it even today.

Filled with offensive language, multiple gay scenes of men openly kissing, and constant sexual references to help move along the theme that homosexuality is not just “ok,” it’s becoming the norm, and there is nothing wrong with it, this film is far past offensive, and I can honestly say I only saw it to write this review objectively and reasonably.

Just as “Brokeback Mountain” failed as a film, in my mind, because it gave no heed to reason or actual filmmaking, but rather simply stuffed a message down our throat, so does “Milk” fail as a biopic because it is biased, overly offensive, and simply untrue to the story of a man’s life we may never truly know (as far as the big screen is concerned). Van Sant, along with the writers of “Milk,” sacrificed a story, a film, and a biography, to make sure that you understood after watching this that “there’s nothing wrong with being gay.”

In contrast, God's chosen people in Old Testament times were required to strive for pure and holy lives and were thus reminded, “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act” (Lev. 20:13).

Violence: Mild / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Extreme

What’s wrong with being gay? Answer
Homosexual behavior versus the Bible: Are people born gay? Does homosexuality harm anyone? Is it anyone's business? Are homosexual and heterosexual relationships equally valid?

What about gays needs to change? Answer
It may not be what you think.

What should be the attitude of the church toward homosexuals and homosexuality? Answer

Read stories about those who have struggled with homosexuality

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.


Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive
Positive—I disagree with the reviewer that this film presented Harvey Milk as a Christ figure or that it bashes Christians. In fact, Harvey Milk was not presented as a Christ figure in this movie. He became so involved in his politics that his first boyfriend left him and his second boyfriend, already mentally disturbed, committed suicide. That doesn't sound like a perfect man to me.

Also, it didn't bash Christians. Anita Bryant was presented as the “villain” here, but all her lines were from archive footage. That means that all her hateful statements were 100% real life and not even dramatized for the movie! It may seem “unfair” that she's the Christian that the movie pays attention, while ignoring the Christians that actually do treat homosexuals with love as God commands us. But do you know what?--if we as Christians keep claiming that our religion is the best, that we are above all other religions, then we are very well going to HAVE to live up to that claim! And if we don't, we deserve every bit of censure we get! And we don't. Most of the time we really don't. That is why Christians find themselves under so much censure. It is not persecution. It is us making claims that we don't uphold.

Also keep in mind: Christians are still the majority in the U.S. Gays will always be in the minority.

As for the reviewer's complaint about men kissing onscreen… that, more than anything, shows that the reviewer is the one with the bias. If it had been heterosexual couples kissing in the same way, the reviewer would have made little complaint about it. In reality, the kissing scenes are very nonoffensive and display far less sexuality than I've seen even in PG-13 films. From the way I see it, if two unmarried people are having sex, it doesn't matter if the couple is heterosexual or homosexual—it is still two unmarried people having sex. The same goes for adultery (such as was in “Brokeback Mountain”), only adultery is far worse than premarital sex since adultery is the breaking of a vow.

Overall, a good movie. Sean Penn deserved the Oscar he got. I watched it with my sister, and we were both moved by it immensely. I suggest Christians see it, too, instead of ignoring the issue. Such an issue cannot be ignored.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Jm, age 18 (USA)
Positive—Firstly, I noticed that in the review of this film, you mentioned Dan White and his wife being offended at Harvey Milk's presence at their son's baptism. I believe the reviewer may have missed the scene immediately before, wherein White explicitly invites Milk to the ceremony, with the intention of getting his support on the mental hospital issue.

I didn't actually see the film as particularly biased, but that was just how I saw it. Milk is a martyr for the gay cause, of course, they're not going to show him in a negative light. Of course, what it did show him doing was having unattached sex, inciting a riot just to show himself as the hero, and neglecting his relationships for his own personal gain. None of those, seem to me, to put him on a pedestal.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Katherine, age 18 (USA)—non-Christian
Positive—I really liked this movie. Biopics tend to be annoying sometimes, but not this one, even though the story is really simple. I love the cast, Emile Hirsch is one of my favorite actor, and I appreciate James Franco and Sean Penn. There's no explicit sex scenes in this film, which I think is good because nowadays you find this kind of scenes in many films! You see Harvey kissing men just a few times, and I think twice he's in bed with his boyfriend but they're not doing anything! The story is very moving. The guy who killed Harvey and the mayor was only sentenced to 7 years of prison, and released after 5! It's disgusting, people who judged him must have thought it wasn't such a bad crime as he had killed a gay person! Otherwise how could you explain such a weak punishment? Lawyers said the murderer had problems with his wife, he wasn't himself and nothing was premeditated. Yeah right… Everone should see this movie, it shows homosexuals are totally normal people and often victims of discrimination.

I would like to mention that in France it was rated with a PG, there's nothing visually shocking concerning sex, and the only shocking scene is Harvey's assassination. I didn't find the movie anti-christian and certainly not anti-God at all as Harvey explains a young man who wants to kill himself that God loves him.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Anna, age 25 (France)
Neutral
Neutral—While it is certainly not the best film of the year, it was definitely well done. Sean Penn deserves an Oscar nomination for his role as Harvey Milk. He's that good, even when he succombs to the occasional gay stereotype. I wish that there had been more of a back story about the man, seeing as this is a bio-pic. Other than that, it was good. The film is obviously a propoganda piece, but it does hold your interest. Some may be offended by the film's content—it is not as graphic as “Brokeback Mountain,” if that's what you're thinking. There were a few questionable moments in the film, but if you know what you're getting in to, and if you are a film buff who can leave your judgments aside and appreciate the story, go ahead and see it. However, if you have personal convictions regarding the subject matter, stay away. Another thing: it seems as though my fellow Christian film reviewers are upset that the film portrays negative Christian stereotypes. Maybe if more Christians showed the love of Christ to people like Harvey Milk, we wouldn't have that problem. There is a right way and a wrong way to “judge” others. However, as it stands, most Christians cannot resist the temptation to be self-righteous, and as a result, Hollywood portrays us as bigoted and small minded. Until we all learn to follow Christ's example of love, we have no room to complain when Hollywood throws the occasional barb our way. If you do decide to see this film, keep that in mind.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 3
—Adam Renkovish, age 26 (USA)
Negative
Negative—The reviewer makes some excellent points not just about “Milk,” but about film biographies in general. Van Zandt has a personal stake as well as a political stake in the film's reputation. In his earlier films I thought Van Zandt's touch was too light, too withdrawn; not anymore; I felt like a punching bag watching this one.

I was not impressed with Penn's performance. I always believed Penn to be more ham than actor. Playing Harvey Milk was obviously a feast for him; he didn't just chew up the part; he chewed up everything around him. The other actors, except for Josh Brolin, appear weak and inneffective; Penn shared nothing with them; their wide collars and their hairdoos ARE their performances. I dread Penn's next act—as Joe Wilson to Naomi Watt's Valerie Plame—if we thought “Milk” was hagiographic, imagine what he and director, Doug Liman, have planned for Wilson-Plame bio. He'll make a point—an unsubtle one, I'm sure, but will we understand Wilson and his wife, or anybody in the CIA or in the White House any better than we did when we read the newspaper stories?

I agree with the reviewer's point about the lack of balance in film biographies about political figures who are cherished by Hollywood elites. Compare Harvey Milk's treatment with Richard Nixon's in “Frost/Nixon.” In “Milk,” Harvey says that he lost three lovers to suicide, and we see a fourth come to a similar end in the film. Milk's explanation for the first three is the usual one: society's oppression. Might there have been another factor? Van Zandt and Penn never say. I wish they had.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 2½
—Jim O'neill, age 56 (USA)
Comments from young people
Positive—“By imbuing the characters with humanity and personality, Van Sant avoids the obvious traps of making Milk a sycophantic tribute or a slickly made piece of propaganda. The story sticks as close to the facts as any bio-pic I can think of and Van Sant uses plenty of genuine '70s stock footage to amplify the period verisimilitude.”—James Berardinelli

I think that the only real biased thing to be pointed out of this review was the reviewer. Maybe he fell asleep as some point but I sure noticed the flaws of the person Harvey Milk, “quite simply, what makes [him a] human being.” But the film also is not as much about the man as what he did, and his influences that are still being felt today, even in the shadow of the California ballot number 8.

As for the film mocking Christians in their prejudicial ways, I don't believe it did. Instead it showed the underbelly of the Christian religion that is unaccepting and uncaring and quite frankly gets too much attention over what Christianity and its followers are really about.

The film does have some sexual content and some profanity, but I think it is worth it to see a film that, whether you agree with the politics, portrays a good set of morals that is more than we can say about most films these days. And quite frankly I am offended that this film got even less recognition on this site than Brokeback Mountain, which received 5-stars on this site and did not support a strong set of morals for people like us who appreciate seeing them in movies.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Joshua S., age 16 (USA)
Movie Critics
…Abhorrent… Strong humanist worldview mixed with very strong politically correct pro-homosexual content (including some crude elements), as well as many anti-God and anti-Christian statements…
—Movieguide
…Almost the definition of a specialized audience film, this Focus release looks to perform strongly in urban and university-adjacent areas but will have trouble crossing over to a public not into gay, political and social-vanguard issues. …
—Todd McCarthy, Variety
Sean Penn is spectacular. …
—Pioneer Press
‘Milk’ has one of the finest ensemble casts this year and a magnificent, career-topping performance by Sean Penn, who disappears into the title role. …
—Claudia Puig, USA Today
Comments from non-viewers
I am writing to express appreciation for the reviewer's analysis of this movie and its subject matter. I think the review expresses a Biblical perspective on homosexuality, which is the essential theme of this movie about gay activist Harvey Milk. As one who has written reviews, I was able to relate to the manner in which the movie was explained. I have seen bits of the movie, but not its entirety, for the simple reason that the thematic content is so offensive. I have a high school classmate who is openly lesbian and married another woman, and I appreciate this friend very much, but I have made it clear to her that this lifestyle is contrary to Biblical morality. I agree, to the extent that I have seen segments of “Milk,” that the movie endows Milk, through Sean Penn's skillfull performance, with righteousness that he did not have, no matter how sincere were his beliefs and endeavors.
Halyna Barannik, age 62 (USA)
Honestly, how can anyone say this movie is positive and say they have a genuine faith in Christ and you're happy with your life? How can you say this movie does anything BUT bash Christian ethics, attacks the way God wants this world to work, and pervert what love truly is? I don't need to see this movie to know it's crap. Why would you put money toward this? So Hollywood can pump out more and keep saying it's okay that gays keep doing what they're doing? They're killing themselves! The average age of a gay is 42 years, and you can't tell me that's what God wants for them; what He created them for! So don't support that! Christians who say this is a good movie: pick a side. There is no way it can be supporting homosexuality and corruption and not be attacking God's morals.
—Benjamin Erik Newcomb, age 17 (USA)